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The rise of fascist ideology and virulent anti-Semitism in Europe during the 1930s posed important questions for social scientists. Psychologists suggested explanations that drew on both psychoanalysis and Marxism. Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957) proposed that capitalism and sexual repression produced sadomasochistic personalities blending aggression toward the weak and vulnerable with deferential submission to power and authority. Abraham Maslow (1908–1970) and Erich Fromm (1900–1980) also described broadly similar authoritarian personalities whose basic needs attracted them to fascism. The most theoretically developed and empirically based of these explanations was proposed in 1950 by Theodor Adorno (1903–1969), Else Frenkel-Brunswik (1908–1958), Daniel Levinson (1920–1994), and R. Nevitt Sanford (1909–1995) in a monumental book, The Authoritarian Personality (1950). This book reported a program of research that began with the aim of explaining antiSemitism, but culminated in a far more ambitious theory, which for a time dominated social scientific inquiry into the psychological bases of prejudice and ethnocentrism.
Their first major finding was that anti-Semitic attitudes were not held in isolation, but were part of a broader ethnocentric pattern involving a generalized dislike of out-groups and minorities, excessive and uncritical patriotism, and politically conservative attitudes. Their research suggested that this pattern of attitudes seemed to be an expression of a particular personality syndrome consisting of nine tightly covarying traits. These were:
- Conventionalism (rigid adherence to conventional middle-class values).
- Authoritarian submission (submissive, uncritical attitudes toward authorities).
- Authoritarian aggression (the tendency to be on the lookout for, condemn, reject, and punish people who violate conventional values).
- Anti-intraception (opposition to the subjective, imaginative, and tender-minded).
- Superstition and stereotypy (belief in mystical determinants of the individual’s fate, and a disposition to think in rigid categories).
- Power and toughness (preoccupation with the dominance-submission, strong-weak, leader-follower dimension; identification with power; exaggerated assertion of strength and toughness).
- Destructiveness and cynicism (generalized hostility, vilification of the human).
- Projectivity (a disposition to believe that wild and dangerous things go on in the world; the projection outward of unconscious emotional impulses).
- Sex (exaggerated concern with sexual “goings-on”).
Psychometric questionnaire items were developed in order to assess each of these traits, and these culminated in the famous F (“fascist”) scale, which was used to measure this “authoritarian personality” dimension. Research did indeed show that that the F scale was powerfully correlated with measures of prejudice, ethnocentrism, conservative attitudes, and extremist right-wing politics.
Adorno and his colleagues theorized that authoritarian personalities originated from childhood socialization characterized by strict, punitive parental discipline and conditional affection. This creates an inner conflict between resentment and hostility toward parental authority and a fearful need to submit to that authority, which culminates in identification with, and submissive idealization of, parental authority, and by extension all authority. This aggression is repressed and displaced onto targets sanctioned by authority. These psychodynamics are expressed in the nine surface traits of the authoritarian personality, the pattern of ethnocentric, conservative, chauvinistic social attitudes, deference to established authority, and pervasive hostility and prejudice against out-groups, minorities, and other socially deviant targets.
This theory attracted enormous attention initially, and the F scale became widely used. Critics, however, noted methodological flaws in the research, and pointed out that the theory ignored authoritarianism of the Left. The F scale was found to have serious psychometric flaws, most notably the all positive formulation of its items so that scores were heavily contaminated by the response style of acquiescence (the general tendency for people to agree rather than disagree). When this was corrected, the items of “balanced” versions of the F scale lacked internal consistency, and so could not be measuring a single unitary syndrome or dimension. As a result of this, and other nonsupportive findings, interest in the theory and the F scale largely collapsed during the 1960s.
Since the mid-1980s, however, interest in the issue has revived with the identification of two distinct “authoritarian” individual difference dimensions that seem to underlie prejudice, intolerance, and ethnocentrism. First, in the 1980s Bob Altemeyer showed that three of Adorno and colleagues’ original traits—conventionalism, authoritarian aggression, and authoritarian submission—did constitute a unitary individual difference dimension, which he named right-wing authoritarianism and characterized as “submissive” authoritarianism. Second, in the 1990s Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto identified a second, “dominant,” authoritarian dimension, seemingly relating to Adorno and colleagues’ original traits of power, toughness, destructiveness, and cynicism, which they called social dominance orientation. The idea that these might be personality dimensions, however, has been challenged, and it has been argued that they seem better viewed as ideological attitude or value dimensions that are influenced by personality, but are not in themselves personality dimensions.
- Adorno, Theodor W., Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and R. Nevitt Sanford. 1950. The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper.
- Altemeyer, Bob. The Other “Authoritarian Personality.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 30, ed. Mark P. Zanna, 47–92. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
- Duckitt, J 2001. A Dual-process Cognitive Motivational Theory of Ideology and Prejudice. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 33, ed. Mark P. Zanna, 41–113. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
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